HALFWAY THROUGH its 1999 negotiating session, the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) is no closer to beginning negotiations than when the session started in January. Differences on nuclear disarmament and preventing an arms race in outer space are holding up agreement on an initial work program—thereby blocking all negotiations, including talks on banning the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, which no delegation opposes. A May 27 Chinese statement describing those three issues, as well as negative security assurances, as "inter-related" points to a continued impasse as the United States opposes negotiations on nuclear disarmament and outer space. The U.S. negotiating priority at the CD remains the fissile material cutoff talks.
In August 1998, the CD started negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, but the talks ended in September with the close of the 1998 negotiating session. Frustrated by the failure to renew negotiations this year, the United States, Britain and France proposed on May 20 a new work program that includes an unprecedented move to exempt the cutoff talks from the conference's rules of operation. The three nuclear-weapon states proposed establishing an ad hoc committee on a fissile cutoff treaty that would run for successive CD sessions until negotiations are completed. Currently, annual authorization is required for any conference subsidiary body, which, in the past, expired with the end of each year's negotiating session.
U.S. Ambassador to the CD Robert Grey said on May 20 that the three sponsors could not believe that the international community wanted fissile cutoff talks to "proceed in fits and starts." He further charged that it would be "irresponsible for the conference to make limited progress this year" and then delay renewing negotiations next year.
However, without an annual means to withhold consent on conducting cutoff talks, other delegations would lose leverage to push Washington on issues that it refuses to negotiate on, such as nuclear disarmament. Because the conference operates by consensus, the May 20 proposal is unlikely to win approval.
U.S. national missile defense (NMD) plans and the new NATO "strategic concept" (see story) drew heavy fire within the conference beginning on May 11, the first plenary of the second of three working parts of the 1999 negotiating session. Moscow warned Washington that deployment of an NMD system could trigger a new strategic arms race, including in outer space, and undermine the existing non-proliferation regime. China echoed Moscow's fears about a new arms race, while Pakistan charged that deployment of an NMD, as well as theater missile defenses, could have "grave consequences in South Asia and elsewhere." Pakistan further claimed that NATO's new strategic concept would "set back" disarmament and non-proliferation.
China, alluding to U.S. NMD plans, charged on May 27 that one country has "ambitious programs" to extend weapons systems into outer space. Perhaps as much a by-product of souring Sino-U.S. relations—particularly after the May 7 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade—as of anxiety with U.S. NMD plans, Beijing has stiffened its position for an outer space ad hoc committee, which China noted is only opposed by one country. China's ambassador to the CD, Li Changhe, warned that the conference's work program needed to be treated as a whole and that "singling out any one of the items while excluding the others is unjustified and unhelpful." Washington contends that there is no arms race in outer space.
The current working period of the 1999 negotiating session ends June 25, and the final part is scheduled from July 26 to September 8. A member of one CD delegation noted that most members are simply "watching and waiting."